Native Americans move to frontlines in battle over voting rights

BELCOURT, North Dakota – Elvis Norquay, a member of the Chippewa Indian tribe, has lived most of his 58 years on North Dakota's remote Turtle Mountain reservation and says he's never had a problem voting.

That was before 2014, when he hitched a ride with a friend to cast a ballot in local and congressional elections and was turned away. Embarrassed, he asked why he couldn't vote. He was told he lacked proper ID under new state requirements. He has no phone, no current driver's license and his tribal ID lacks a street address.

"When we left, my friend said, 'that's not right'," said Norquay, who has lived on disability since 2002 in a rural county near the Canadian border.

Norquay is among a growing number of Native Americans embroiled in court battles over changes to voting laws that could influence the outcome of some tight races in the November 2016 presidential and congressional elections.

While the Native American population is small nationally, lawsuits involving tribes over voting problems have proliferated since the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, a signature legislative achievement of the 1960s civil rights movement.

North Dakota is one of 17 states that have new voting restrictions in place since the last presidential contest, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Many of these changes have sparked lawsuits and accusations that black, Hispanic and other minority voters could be disenfranchised.


Five federal lawsuits involving Native Americans have been filed since the Supreme Court decision, including three this year alone.

Suits in North Dakota, Utah, South Dakota and Arizona claim new voting rules passed in majority Republican states are discriminatory and could reduce voting by tribal members, who tend to back Democrats. A suit in Alaska, for example, claimed the state violated federal rules by failing to translate voting materials for tribal voters.

The tribes say changes to voting rules in those states disproportionately affect Native Americans, an allegation the states and counties deny.

The Native American vote is not big enough to flip a safe Republican state such as North Dakota into the Democrat column in this year's presidential election, but Native Americans are a growing proportion of the population and a majority in some counties where increased voter turnout in recent years has tipped the balance in some congressional races.

In many states, the number of Native Americans is growing faster than the population as a whole. Between 2000 and 2010, the Native American population rose by 26.7 percent to 1.1 million, compared to 9.7 percent growth in America's overall population, census data showed.

Recent changes to voting laws, such as North Dakota's new voter ID law, are part of "a much broader, deliberate, and concerted effort by Republicans to reduce turnout among particular groups of voters on election day," said Pratt Wiley, head of voter protection issues at the Democratic Party in Washington.

"Those voters are more vulnerable today than they were before the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013," he said of Native Americans.

Republicans deny that voting law changes passed by Republican-dominated legislatures are discriminatory and say they are intended to reduce fraudulent votes.

"These are popular common sense laws to protect elections from fraud," said Lindsay Walters, national spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee.

At issue in North Dakota are revisions pushed largely by Republican state legislators in 2013 and 2015 to a 2003 state elections law that eliminated a provision that had allowed people without proper identification such as Norquay to vote if they were recognized by a poll worker or if they signed an affidavit swearing to their identity.

Norquay and six other members of his tribe sued the secretary of state in January in U.S. District Court in North Dakota. They said they were refused the right to vote in November 2014 because many old tribal IDs such as Norquay's don't list a current residential address.

It says some tribal members can't afford a new tribal ID or struggle to obtain proper identification because there are no state offices that provide driver's licenses on the reservations.

Richard McCloud, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said widespread unemployment and poverty among tribal members meant that some struggle to afford the $10 needed to obtain a new tribal card.

"Ten dollars is three pounds of hamburger and some macaroni for a family," said McCloud at the tribe's headquarters on the reservation of about 4,274 people a few miles (km) south of the Canadian border.

"Maybe it's no big deal if you work, but it's a big deal to people that don't have access to $10," he said.

North Dakota's secretary of state, Al Jaeger, the only defendant in the suit, said in an interview that the law is not discriminatory and simplifies the voting process in the only state in the country that does not require voters to register ahead of an election. He said his office has spent heavily on ad campaigns to educate voters about what IDs are accepted.

Jaeger's deputy, Jim Silrum, said the ID requirements are not a barrier for the 97 percent of state residents with driver's licenses, an accepted form of ID, so the number of people affected by the changes is miniscule. Those with no driver's license, can get a non-driver state ID allowed at the polls from the motor vehicle department for free.


Jaeger and Silrum said they could not respond directly to an assertion in the lawsuit that residents on reservations have to travel long distances to obtain a state ID.


Republican state Representative Jim Kasper from Fargo repeated his party's argument that the changes were aimed at reducing the risk of voter fraud, but Silrum said there was little evidence of such irregularities. In the 2012 presidential election, there were only nine cases of people voting twice, but that was because they used the same ID rather than a lack of proper identification, he said.

State Representative Kylie Oversen, a Democrat from Grand Forks, said the changes could alter tight elections in favor of Republicans. She said Republicans pushed for the bill after Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012 by less than 3,000 votes.

In sparsely populated states such as North Dakota, with just 739,000 people, congressional elections have been decided by just a few thousand votes.

Rolette County, surrounding Norquay's reservation, is one of two counties in the state where about 75 percent of the population is Native American. Those two counties were the only places in North Dakota that gave President Barack Obama more than 70 percent of the vote in 2012.

After the changes in the ID law were implemented in North Dakota, voter turnout in Rolette County dropped by more than 12 percentage points between the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, more than any other county in the state, election data from the secretary of state's office shows.

"What has happened is the Native American vote has become something that can tip elections," said Jean Schroedel, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California who studies Native American voting.

The Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit law firm representing Norquay and other members of his tribe in the lawsuit against the state, plans to file a motion by June 30 requesting that the court invalidate the changes to the ID law ahead of November's election, according to court documents.